Thursday, April 20, 2017

10 Tips for Handling Meltdowns in the Classroom

Let me start off by saying, I hope you don't have any reason to read this post.  I hope that your students are all happy, healthy and well-adjusted.  In fact, I hope you are wondering exactly what I mean by "classroom meltdowns"... but I have a sneaking suspicion that you do know what I mean.  If you have been teaching for awhile, or if you work with a challenging population or if you... I don't know... have ever met a five year old... chances are, you have had an experience with a meltdown.

So, in the spirit of guiding these little people we teach and love through challenging moments - and keeping our sanity - I decided I would share my "Top 10 Tips for Handling Classroom Meltdowns" with you today. 

Now, I am not a behavioral therapist or a chid psychologist.  This list is the real deal...the "in the trenches" teacher list.  These are the things that I've learned from 17 years of teaching pre-k ESE, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, children with special needs, children in foster care & traumatic care placements and inner city schools.  Oh, and from being a mother of 4 (which includes an adoption and red-headed twins...the twins alone should give me all the "street cred" I need! Ha!).

So, there you are in your happy classroom teaching your perfect lesson when all of a sudden the meltdown of all meltdowns occurs... 

OR there you are in your super challenging classroom where you are doing everything you can to give your students everything they need (even when it is officially more than you have to give) and the meltdown of all meltdown occurs... 

OR you are somewhere in the middle.  Wherever you are...I'VE BEEN THERE.  At some point over the last 17 years I have been there.  It is hard to imagine that there is a meltdown experience that I haven't yet experienced. 

These are the tried and true tips that have worked for me.  They really work.  Sometimes I forget them... because... you know, the crying... the screaming... the melting down... but when I can talk to myself as if I am my own intern (that is one of my best secrets!) these are the tips I remind myself - and they work!  

Here's one of the problems with meltdowns in the classroom: they are usually public and they are generally unacceptable - and kids know this.  So, our students often wind up backing themselves into a corner and they don't know how to get out.

This is why it is really important that we offer our students a little grace, or an "out".  Now, don't get me wrong, there have to be consequences for actions.  I firmly believe that we have to teach students to take responsibility for their choices.  

However, I also believe that if there is never any chance of redemption we can't really expect young students to "hold it together".  Back in the "old days" of clip charts there was a lot of debate about whether the clip should be able to "move back up" the chart after it was "moved down" for misbehavior.  You will have to decide what works for you and your students...but I really encourage you to look for a way to hold students accountable for their actions, while still giving them a chance to "fix things".  If they have "ruined their day" by 9 am it is going to be a very, very, very long day for everyone involved!

You will have to decide what an "out" looks like for your student.  It might mean a chance to rejoin the group activity right away, letting him know you will write a note home about how quickly he is able to calm himself down, or a second chance at something that was frustrating.  

Meltdowns often occur when students are frustrated and overwhelmed.  Giving your student "a break" is an important strategy both for avoiding and for calming meltdowns.

If you have a student that is prone to meltdowns, you might want to consider "break tickets" or "calm down passes".  The best is if you can stay a step ahead of the meltdowns.  A teacher friend of mine used to have a student that she sent around campus to have "very important messages" signed.  The very important message was a note that said I need a break ... please sign this and send him to another room.  It gave her 10 minutes and it gave him a "very important job" and a break when he needed it.

I have had other students who were able to control their own "break tickets".  Depending on the student, they had 3 tickets a day or a week, and could use the tickets for their own 10 minute "break" to calm down either with a book, headphones, a rest etc.

I have always used this as a pretty individualized intervention and it has varied from student to student.  However, whenever I have used it it has worked remarkably well.

My oldest daughter had her share of meltdowns when she was younger and nothing would change her mood like putting her in the tub.  It was an instant game changer.  Unfortunately I am not able to install a shower in my I have learned to make due with a water fountain.

My teacher BFF laughs at me because I think that water is the solution to pretty much all of life's problems.  Seriously.  
-"Oh, you have a headache?  You must be dehydrated, go get some water."  
-"I miss my mommy sometimes too.  You know what makes me feel better?  Water.  Go get a drink."
-"He looked at you? Really?  I can't believe that! You should go get a drink of water."

I am telling you, there is something about getting a drink of water that helps.  First of all, it is a little acknowledgement.  It helps the student to feel "heard".  Second, it breaks up the cycle a little bit - he has to get up and move across the room, and I swear, there is something about the water itself that helps.  

"If... Then..."  Magic words.  

When our students get worked up they often don't know how to deescalate.  They are in a situation that they are now just making worse by the minute.  One of the best things you can do is to provide simple steps toward a solution.

There is magic in the simplicity of "If you do this, then you can do that".  It is such an easy, concrete way to help an overwhelmed student find a solution to their problem or to problem-solve.  

The "trick" to this is to not use too many extra words.  Keep it simple.  This works best when your student is melting down because he/she is overwhelmed and/or frustrated and needs help finding a simple solution.  It's a "less is more" situation.

If you keep it simple and offer a solution, then your student will be able to calm down and regain control. 

This one can be hard if you are a super emotional person like I am.  I am never good at "removing" myself.  I pride myself on being connected with my students.  However, this can be tricky at times.  

For example, if I am going to be honest it is really easy for me to get my feelings hurt by a student who directs a meltdown at me.  "You are so mean!"  "I hate you!"  "You are the worst teacher ever!"  Ouch... (and those are the PG rated insults.  I have definitely had my share of R rated insults over the years).

How about the kiddo that you know is not melting down about a broken crayon but because mom and dad are getting divorced? Or the child living in foster care who is screaming that he hates everyone - but you know she is just looking for someone to show her a little love?  

Okay, here is the thing.  You have to keep your emotions out of it.  Your student has lost control.  Feeling hurt, or empathetic, or angry is not going to help him.  It is very important that you stay calm and in control.  By controlling your emotions and "going on with business as usual" you are showing your student that it is possible (and not all that hard) to move on from this moment - when he feels so out of control.  You are the living proof that "life will go on" and that everything is going to go "back to normal".  (I actually have a lot to say about this and want to write an entire post about it one day soon...but for now this is the short version.)

Staying positive is just one more way for you to stay in control of the situation.  If you are here reading this post, my guess is that you are generally a pretty positive teacher.  It can be hard to keep smiling when your "sunny and bright" classroom is filled with screaming and crying.  However, it is really, really important.  If you are having trouble staying positive then "fake it 'till you make it"!

Remember that you are the "captain of this ship"... especially when you are sailing through a storm!  Whether you realize it or not, everyone in the room is waiting and watching for your reaction.  All of your students are going to look to you to see how to react.  If you can keep smiling the tone in the room will stay positive - but if you give in to the frustration and stress - the ship is going to go down.

It always surprises me exactly how much my attitude affects every single thing in my classroom!  So keep smiling (even when it is really, really hard to smile!)

It's a good idea to have a designated space for students to calm down.  Do you need to do this?  Of course not.  Do I think you should do this?  Yes. Here's why.  If you have a student that is melting down and has truly lost control he is going to need a few minutes to "get it back together".  This is stressful for everyone.

To say it can be distracting for other students to have one of their peers screaming or crying in the seat next to them is an understatement.  We tell students to "just ignore" this, but that is a lot to ask!

It can also be very difficult for some students to de-escalate a tantrum when they feel like "all eyes are on them".  Giving the upset student a "calm down space" can solve both problems.

A "calm-down space" can be a corner of the room with a bean bag or pillow, a small space behind your desk, a little chair in the back of the room near the backpack area ... anywhere that is away from the "eyes" of other students.

I believe that it is important that a "calm down space" is not used as a time-out area.  I don't ever use my "calm down space" punitively.  I don't believe that it would be effective this way, and having a little corner that can be used purely for taking a moment to regain control is going to benefit everyone.

When a student is in the middle of a meltdown he is probably not being super-respectful.  I know I have heard a lot more students scream "LEAVE ME ALONE!!!" than ask "Can I please have a moment to myself?" mid-meltdown.

However, this is a really good time for you to model the respect you would like to see.  First of all, your other students are watching you very closely.  Even if you don't think they are, they are - trust me.  They are watching and noting everything you do and say.  This is a perfect time to model that we can always speak in a respectful tone and choose respectful words...even when someone is being unkind or doing something doesn't have to change the respect that we choose to give them.

Your out-of-control student is also watching you.  He may not be able to process everything you are saying and doing in the moment.  However, your words and your tone matter.  Offering grace and respect matters.  Letting our students know that this behavior is unacceptable- but that we always care for and respect them matters.

Meltdown moments remind me to let my whole class know how proud I am of the way they care for one another...because they do.  They really do - because we have worked so hard on our class culture - just like I'm sure you have.

We have built friendships, taught acceptance and forgiveness.  We have "used our words" and been "problem solvers" a thousand times by now.  So, when these meltdown moments come, I know that I can rely on my students to "forgive and forget".

I have never had a student made fun of or ostracized for a meltdown/tantrum.  Never.  And I have had some very, very challenging classes over the years.  I have had some classes that had a lot of meltdowns and I have had some classes that needed a lot of help being kind to one another.  However, with every single group, I have been able to build a "team" that makes a huge difference in moments like these!

I feel like this quote by L.R. Knost pretty much sums it all up: "When little people become overwhelmed by big emotions it is our job to share our calm - not to join their chaos."

That's really what it all comes down to.  We have to remember that they are just little people. They have only been on the planet for five or six or seven years - they are still new at being alive.  Heck, I feel like I am still figuring everything out and I have been here a lot longer than seven years!

Sometimes everything just gets "too big" or "too much" for these little people and they fall apart... loudly.  When that happens we have to "share our calm".  It is so easy to get frustrated and frazzled when they are yelling and screaming (and believe me, I have gotten frazzled plenty of times!) but that is "joining the chaos" - and goodness knows we don't want anymore chaos!!  

This quote has really helped me a lot.  I have it pinned up in my office and remind myself of it often. I love the idea of "sharing the calm"!  It has really been a bit of a game-changer for me.

I hope you got some helpful tips here today.  I am sure that most of these things are things that you know and already do ... but sometimes seeing them altogether and reminding yourself can be helpful. (I know just writing it all out was a helpful reminder for me!)  Please share some of your best tips for "sharing your calm" in the comments!  I would love to hear your ideas!

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